The Witch’s Ordeal

James Lloyd visits the village of Ailsworth to remember a story of violent lawsuits and upper-class voodoo in Anglo-Saxon England.

If there is one moral to be learnt from Hammer Horror films, then it is this: Beware the sleepy English village. Beneath its anodyne exterior of half-timbered cottages and doddery parsons lurks a literally demonic society, where by night the church becomes the temple of the Horned God and black magic is the whole of the law. It is, of course, an enjoyable fantasy but there is at least one sleepy English village where this cinematic cliché was not far from the truth.

Ailsworth is little more than an unassuming housing estate in the Soke of Peterborough. It was formerly in Northamptonshire but was re-designated part of Cambridgeshire in the infamous re-organization of 1974. There is precious little to see beyond a Methodist chapel and a handbag shop. Its modesty, however, is but a cunning disguise. This village has a very old and very dark history.

In the year 948, Ailsworth was an estate in the possession of a widow and her son, whose names are sadly unrecorded. In circumstances that are now unknown, the widow had a falling out with Ælfsige, a thegn (the equivalent of what a later, French-speaking generation would call a baron). To dispose of Ælfsige, the widow and her son wove a doll that represented Ælfsige and then stabbed it with an iron needle. The spell failed but, when the doll was discovered in the widow’s cupboard, she and her son were accused of witchcraft and brought to London, to be tried in the presence of King Eadred and the assembled bishops, abbots, ealdormen and thegns of the kingdom.

Contrary to the Horrible Histories version of the past, a charge of witchcraft in this period did not incur an automatic verdict of guilt, nor did a verdict of guilt incur an automatic sentence of death. Spells intended to cause someone else’s death, however, were treated as a form of attempted murder and the judicial procedure, though the same for accused witches as for anyone else, would raise a few eyebrows today.

The Anglo-Saxons practised a form of trial by character references, in which the accused, if he wished to deny the charge, had to find a certain number of other people willing to swear to his innocence. The precise number varied, depending on the severity of the charge and the social status of the accused and his oath-helpers. For this reason, it was judicially advantageous to have as many friends as possible. Today, being un-friended means social death. In Anglo-Saxon times, it could mean actual death.

If, however, the accused could not find enough people willing to risk their own reputations on his behalf, then there was one last option: To let God decide. This was what befell the widow, who, being unable to prove her innocence before the King and his nobles, resorted to trial by ordeal.

There were three versions of the ordeal: The ordeal by fire, the ordeal by iron and the ordeal by water. The first two were variations on a theme, in which the accused had to seize either a stone from a boiling cauldron or a bar from a furnace, carry it a certain number of paces according to the severity of the charge and then drop it. His hand would be bandaged and, if his injuries had healed after three days, then he would be declared innocent. If his hand had festered, then he was guilty and sentence would be carried out.

The widow, however, chose to undergo ordeal by water. This was similar to the much later practice of witch-swimming, involving being sunk in water and remaining submerged for a brief period but it was arguably slightly more rational: If the accused drowned, then he was assumed to have been guilty. Floating, far from being a sign of evil, proved that God wished the accused to be spared.

In the widow’s case, however, God wished nothing of the sort. She was trussed up and bundled over London Bridge into the Thames, never to emerge breathing again. The assembly agreed that she must have been guilty of witchcraft – and this implicated her son, too, who did his case no favours by running away. He was never found and the assembly declared him an outlaw.

The widow’s death and her son’s conviction caused their estate at Ailsworth to be forfeited to the King, who gave it to Ælfsige, the very man whom they had attempted to kill. We know all this because, after Ælfsige’s (presumably natural) death around twenty years later, his son, Wulfstan Uccea, gave Ailsworth to the Bishop of Winchester, who in turn bequeathed it to Peterborough Abbey. It was the archivally-minded monks who recorded a summary of the estate’s history, alongside the charter under which King Eadred had granted it to Ælfsige. Although the originals of these documents are now lost, the Abbey did have the foresight to write up a register of his endowments in the mid-thirteenth century, including transcripts of both the Ailsworth documents.

The life-expectancy of documents such as these was not high. They had to endure Normans, fires, thieves, the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Roundheads and no collection from any Anglo-Saxon church has survived in its entirety. Although hundreds have weathered history’s storms and are now much treasured by historians, there must once have been thousands, the loss of which has diminished our knowledge of this period of English history as much as the smattering of chance survivals has enhanced it.

Without Peterborough Abbey’s register of its landed portfolio, no one would ever have guessed that the quiet footnote of a village that is Ailsworth was once the property of England’s earliest recorded witch. This country has many other quiet, sleepy, innocent-looking villages and parishes, quaint rustic idylls of old-fashioned charm that, behind the picture-postcard exterior, harbour a dark history, full of interesting, exciting and grisly episodes. If only we knew them.


Photo credits: Thatched cottage, Main Street, Ailsworth (JThomas) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ailsworth: The village sign (Michael Garlick) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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